From The Incidental Economist:
How might this play out in our homes, in our churches, or in our work place?
Dodge and others have explored ways that individuals vary in their responses to such ambiguous signals and situations. One striking finding has obvious implications for youth violence prevention. Aggression-prone youth are systematically more likely to interpret others’ ambiguous behaviors as more hostile than these really are.
Hostile intention attribution bias is obviously dangerous when two frightened and pumped 17-year-olds exchange words. It is equally dangerous, though the consequences play out more slowly, when youth interact with teachers or other authority figures. My friend Tony DiVittorio of Youth Guidance tells a story about what happens when a student arrives late to class (again). The teacher gets in the student’s face and sends him to detention. The kid concludes that the teacher hates him. He curses her out, storms out of the classroom, punches a locker, and makes her perceived hostility into a self-fulfilling prophesy. Had this student interpreted his teacher’s unspoken attitudes and intentions differently, he might have acted differently, and thus obtained a different result….Lest you think attribution restructuring is only important for at-risk parents who fit some negative stereotype, let me conclude with a simple story about caretaking for someone with a challenging disability.
When my intellectually-disabled brother-in-law Vincent moved into our home, he displayed a number of behaviors that I sought to control. He displayed one such behavior his entire life. When he becomes nervous or angry, he sometimes bites the base of his hand in a way I found quite disturbing. I reacted badly to this upsetting behavior. I would sometimes double-down on whatever I was doing that was upsetting him, under the assumption he was being defiant.
Once he was accurately diagnosed with fragile X syndrome, I learned that he wasn’t being defiant. Hand-biting is actually a characteristic behavior associated with the disorder. The best response was the opposite of what I was doing. I needed to back off, and to give Vincent a chance to regroup himself. This simple knowledge of the disorder made me less angry. Maybe because it gave me permission to stop trying to change a deeply-rooted behavior, it made it easier for me to respond more humanely and effectively.